WINCHESTER — An emotionally disabled 15-year-old boy convicted as an adult for beating another 15-year-old boy on a school bus in September was sentenced to juvenile detention on Tuesday in Frederick County Circuit Court over the objections of his parents.
The victim sustained a mild to moderate concussion. The Winchester Star typically doesn’t name juveniles unless they are accused or convicted of crimes involving severe injuries or deaths.
A jury convicted the boy of malicious wounding on Dec. 10. On Tuesday, the boy received a five- to eight-month “indeterminate sentence,” meaning his incarceration could be shorter or longer, based on how authorities assess his behavior. The longest an offender can be held in a juvenile prison is until their 21st birthday.
The boy was prosecuted as an adult due to the viciousness of the approximately three-minute assault, which was filmed on the school bus surveillance video. After the victim spat at the boy for making annoying scratching sounds on the bus window, the boy punched the victim 60 to 75 times. He then elbowed him about 60 times and kicked him a few times.
In seeking imprisonment rather than allowing the boy to live at home while receiving outpatient treatment, Louis Campola, a county assistant commonwealth’s attorney, argued that the attack was part of a violent pattern by the boy. While attending Northwestern Regional Educational Programs — a school on Senseny Road that serves children in Winchester and Clarke and Frederick counties with emotional, mental or physical disabilities — the boy had several violent incidents.
The boy, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder, has thrown chairs and pushed over desks in fits of rage at the school, according to Ralph Reese, program administrator. Reese testified that in some instances the boy scuffled with staff when they tried to restrain him. He also spit at Reese. However, Reese told Campola that the boy tries to avoid confrontations when he gets angry.
“Quite often, he will choose to leave rather than engage in disruptive behavior,” Reese said, adding that the school didn’t want to take the boy back after the school bus fight. “He has a hard time regulating his emotions.”
The boy, who has been imprisoned at the Northwestern Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Frederick County for all but a week since being arrested, had two incidents there in November. He was disciplined for cursing at staff and then flooding his cell, then he tried to throw a desk at a staff member before being restrained.
Ashleigh Morrison, the juvenile probation officer assigned to the boy’s case, testified that on a scale of low, moderate, high and very high risk of re-offending, the boy was a moderate risk. Morrison recommended he be imprisoned because incarceration offers a better balance between punishment and rehabilitation than outpatient care.
Morrison said the state Department of Juvenile Justice has vastly reformed since she was hired in 2014. She said there is now a much greater emphasis on rehabilitation through education and therapeutic treatment such as individual and family counseling. Morrison recommended an indeterminate sentence because it gives children incentive to cooperate with their treatment.
“We’re really trying to have more of a therapeutic environment rather than a punitive environment,” she said. “It’s a punitive measure to be committed to DJJ, but he also would be provided with a variety of services.”
Defense attorney Michael William Helm countered that DJJ workers are overworked and underpaid and the boy would be better off living with his parents, who have juggled their jobs to care for him and would take him to outpatient treatment.
Helm noted that because the pre-frontal cortex of the brain isn’t fully developed until the age of about 25, children act more impulsively and can’t think or function like adults. Helm said that lack of comprehension was compounded by the boy’s mental state. “Don’t punish him because he has a disability,” Helm told Judge Alexander R. Iden.
The boy’s parents testified that they believed their son deserved to be punished, but in a juvenile court and with a misdemeanor assault charge.
Campola noted that felonies like malicious wounding are permanent whether they occur in juvenile or adult court.
“No one is going to deny that the defendant suffers from a mental illness, but we have a duty to protect the community,” Campola told Iden. “This is serious stuff.”
Iden told the boy that while he has supportive parents, juvenile prison was the most appropriate punishment.
“You did something wrong,” he said. “There has to be punishment and consequences.”